“Our forefathers had a saying, ‘Without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sin,’” the old woman said. She was called the Whisperer and sat at the head of a rusty, square table, in a dank, windowless, concrete room. The room, which was illuminated by three naked lightbulbs, contained several other people, some standing along the walls, some sitting at the table.
“As long as I have sat in this Whisperer’s chair,” she said, “there has only been violence among our peoples. I will not call into question the ancient wisdom. But year after year has our blood been shed, yet without reconciliation.”
“My lady,” said a man with a tattooed L on his neck, seated at the table on her right, nervously and quietly, “We have scores to settle. No one knows better the cost of vindication than those who are victims. We, the Leone’s, have lost…”
“Shut up!” A man on the opposite side of the table slammed his fists onto the table. He had the letter M tattooed on his neck. “All the clans have scores! Don’t waste your breath on the poor fate of the Leone’s. We, the Marest’s, have a great and ancient score, and we will settle it and not forget it.”
The man’s outburst reverberated around the room. He was the representative of the Marest family and had been yelling at the representative of the Leone family. These, as well as the other families present, were not families in the biological sense, but were more rather like clans or gangs. According to Imperial law, each newborn received the mark of their clan as a tattoo on their neck. The mark was usually the first letter of the clan name. The divisions were extremely strict, and the Empire had many laws and regulations keeping the clans separate.
At the first Tuesday of every month, the clans of the city would send a representative to meet the Whisperer at what were called justice meetings. They were supposedly secret affairs, although most thought that the authorities knew about them, and tolerated them. In any event, it was an opportunity for the Whisperer, a traditional leader of these people and also the unofficial contact for the Imperials, to disseminate information she received from the authorities regarding crime and punishment. At the beginning of these Tuesday meetings the Whisperer would read out the Report on the Administration of Justice. The second priority of these meetings was to settle disputes among the clans, but progress on this front had not happened in anyone’s memory.
The Imperial rulers had tribunals of their own, which they called ‘Universals.’ There the law was to apply to all without respect for persons. Whether or not these tribunals ever functioned in this fair way, it was not known. But in the collective memories of the town clans, the ‘Universals’ were only ever tools of oppression.
“Shall we review the Report on the Administration of Justice?” the Whisperer asked? There was no response, nor did she expect one.
She continued and began to read, “Let us see. ‘A Universal was held regarding the matter of a Grounder who was caught in the Upper Stories without a valid pass. He was duly charged, convicted, and sentenced to life outside the city for a period of three years.’”
The Empire was divided into cities, and each city into strata, that quite literally corresponded to how far off the ground a person lived. Outside of the city were agricultural and mining works. It was essentially lawless and a dangerous place to live. The essentials of life had to be stolen or scavenged. Inside the cities, at the lowest level were the Grounders, who lived on the ground floor of the city, or below it, or perhaps a few stories up. The social ranks increased from there. Humanity above the Grounders lived in magnificent towers, with networks of bridges and transport stations linking buildings. There was so much above the ground level that the sun was never actually seen on the ground level, and their world was dimly and weirdly lit by electric and neon lights.
There was limited reaction to the reading of the Report among the people in the room. It was always more of the same.
Presently the Whisperer continued, “It amazes me that the clans meet here at all anymore. The Imperial Reports are always the same, and I know and I have seen your bloody scorekeeping. I hear it from my shanty when I lie down.”
The room was quiet. The people at the table looked down and the people standing along the wall avoided eye contact. The rumble of an Imperial patrol jeep was heard close by. As the sound drew nearer, some heads in the room perked up, listening for any cue that might signal the need to scatter. The sound grew nearer and then began to get softer. The patrol was driving away.
The Whisperer looked around at the dejected group of people. “I am the Whisperer. By the rites and truths of our forefathers I tell you justice will be delivered for us one day.” Her voice was quiet. The nervousness brought on by the sound of the patrol had focused the room’s attention sharply on her.
“Are there any among you who believe the traditions? Is there faith in our common cause among you? The clans hate one another more than they love fidelity to our ancient truths.”
The man on her right spoke up. “I swear by the House of Leone that we have not lost sight of our traditions, Lady Whisperer. My Lady, you know our justice meetings have not delivered justice among us or for us in a long time. All hope for justice has been to…”
“Take matters into your own hands,” the Marest man finished his rival’s sentence.
“My Lady,” a voice called from the back. “Tell us again why we are one people and not clans.”
“You are clans because centuries ago the Empire discovered it could control Grounders better if they divided them into groups and set rules prohibiting intermingling. You know the story. I repeat it for your edification. The creation of the clan structure caused great suffering among our people, who were one before then. The clans that were set up were arbitrary. Families and communities were torn apart. The Imperial planners knew that in decades or centuries, the clan structure would be deeply rooted in our society, causing fighting and factionalism, preventing us from rebelling against the Empire’s oppression.”
They all knew the story and that it was true.
Another voice from the wall spoke up. “What are we to do then? The last justice meeting was exactly the same. Complaints against one another for blood shedding and no justice.”
“Without the shedding of blood there is no remission,” the Whisperer said. “The cycle of violence among our people will stop when innocent blood has been shed and no recompense taken.”
The Marest man spoke,” But that’s not what the ancient wisdom says!”
“Who told you how to interpret the ancient wisdom? “The Whisperer snapped. “The truth of the tradition is and happens, but you do not make its being nor are you its cause.”
Around the room the people shifted in their places under the new tension that had settled over them.
“My Lady,” the Leone man said, “we have another matter to bring to you today, the Leone’s and the Marest’s both, together.”
The Whisperer raised her eyebrows, as did others in the room. The Leone’s and the Marest’s had the fiercest rivalry among the major clans.
The Leone man motioned for the one door in room, directly opposite the Lady Whisperer, to be opened. Someone opened it, and a man stepped in, with the Leone L mark on his neck. He was followed by a woman, heavily pregnant, with the Marest M mark.
Eyes opened wide and gasps were heard around the room. The Whisperer sat back in her chair away from the table.
The man and woman stepped forward together and approached the end of the table closest to them, directly across from the Whisperer. Those seated close by moved aside, scrapping their chairs on the cement floor.
The Whisperer lifted her arm in the direction of the couple. “What is this?” She asked, with a soft, controlled, and yet intense voice.
“This is the other item we wished to bring to your attention. We are not sure how to deal with it,” the Marest man said.
“I should say so!” the Whisperer responded.” There hasn’t been a coupling recorded between the clans in decades, let alone a child being produced. You know what the Imperial government does with such things.”
“They have been living outside the town,” the Marest man continued. “The more pregnant she became the more dangerous it was for them to live out there, living in some abandoned hut in between some farms. The man came into his Leone clan meeting and told the leadership what happened. Then they both came to us at her Marest clan leadership meeting. We have kept them hidden.”
“Hidden?” The Leone man shouted, “No, they’re not hidden, they’re here. In the city. Right beside passing Imperial patrols. This is on your clan! The Marest are a curse!”
“The Leone produce only womanizers and sirens,” the Marest man shouted back. “And look what you’ve caused now! The Leone are a blight.”
The Leone man jumped to his feet, mounted his chair, then the table. The Marest man did the same. As they were about to rush at each other the Whisperer stood up suddenly and shouted “Enough!” She held out her arms to each of the would-be belligerents, now standing stupidly on the table. The pregnant woman put her face in her hand and started to cry softly.
“This is a difficult problem, there can be no doubting,” the Whisperer said. “I tell you violence and fighting among you will not help.”
The two men were still on the table, glaring at each other, breathing heavily. They both then dismounted the table and gathered themselves into their chairs again.
At that moment the door to the room slammed open and a stun grenade exploded. People screamed. Some hit the floors, others tried to scramble under the table. A rush of Imperial security officers, dressed in black from head to toe, streamed in, their equipment and boots and tools clicking and clanking. They grabbed the man and woman by their arms and took them from the room.
By the time the effects of the stun grenade had worn off, the couple and security forces were long gone. Those in the room looked at one another with shocked, distraught faces. It seemed that they should check themselves for injuries, but as it happened, only the people standing by the door and the couple had been bruised.
All in the room arose from their crouching and huddles and looked through the dust and smoke of the stun grenade toward the Whisperer.
“That’s done it, hasn’t it?” She looked down, shaking her head.
The next justice meeting, on the first Tuesday of the following month, was duly held. As the different clan representatives came into the dank room the Whisperer’s face was grim. This was noticed by those taking their usual places around the rusty table and pockmarked concrete walls, and they exchanged nervous glances with one another.
The Whisperer wasted no time in getting started. “To business then. First, the Report of the Administration of Justice relating to the Grounder inhabitants,” she read from a slip of paper. “A serious case of inter-clan miscegenation was discovered recently. This is a clear and heinous violation of the strictest social laws of the Empire. The individuals in question were arrested, duly charged, and convicted in the Universal. This morning they were executed by firing squad, together, as they clearly wished. Let it be known to all Grounders that this gross misbehavior will never be tolerated.”
The read-out ceased.
The hum of the electric lights became loud to those in the room.
The oppression of the Empire had been well-known for generations, but suddenly it seemed new and fresh and horrific.
The Marest man quivered with rage, “they were innocent. The Empire has no right to…”
The Leone man picked up, “This is an injustice to Leone and Marest alike.”
“We, too,” a voice seated further down from the Leone representative said, “We, the Pelucs, are as aggrieved at this as if it happened to one of our own.”
The Whisperer spoke, “the ancient wisdom says, ‘it is unwise to act out of hatred.’ Be warned. But see that your experience of injustice unites you more firmly than your clans divide you. Justice is real. The clans are not. The traditions ask you, ‘will the circle be unbroken?’”
The Leone man stretched his arm along the table and was met by the arm of the Marest man.
“We will avenge our kin,” said the Marest, “At the price of our lives we forfeit the scores to seek justice for all our peoples. Do you agree?”
The Leone said, “we forfeit the scores. We agree.” They were joined by the representatives of the other clans in the room who crowded around them. The Whisperer was witness.
They all arose with a new purpose and left the room to begin the planning of vengeance or justice, and to reconcile to one another.
The Whisperer sat back in her chair and thought, without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sin.
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Great story. You have good description of the social classes. Excellent morale to the story.
Awesome story! Great characters and atmosphere! What stood out was that several of its underlying themes were in my stories as well, especially the ideas of clans and overcoming despotism. Funny how synchronicity works. I'm inclined to follow!